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After Hurricane Katrina, some bold urban economists suggested that New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt, as its situation was, frankly, ill-chosen. Maybe, but the adoration for the city displayed in this effervescent double bill made it plain how that suggestion might have been greeted. This object lesson in the importance of roots opened with a solo piano set of rhythm and blues from the prodigious New Orleans composer, songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, and closed with the Preservation Hall Orchestra’s recreation of a traditional New Orleans march-about.
Toussaint captures the authentic tinkle of barrelhouse drinking dens, but delivers it with a razor-sharp understanding of structure and melodic form. As he sings with a producer’s voice and an arranger’s piano, you can just imagine him instructing vocalists and studio musicians what to play and how to play it. Midway through his set he revealed his musical birthright, from the one-fingered stumblings of a beginner through waltzes and rags to trademark lopsided shuffles.
His biggest hits – “Mother in Law” and “Working in a Coalmine” – were written for others. But he didn’t mind – he recalled that it was the Rolling Stones, who covered his “Fortune Teller”, that showed him “the way to the bank”. Between songs, Toussaint acted the raconteur, noodling on piano, finally laying on the cheese when he conjured a childhood visit to a rural idyll, complete with silent, all-knowing, rocking-on-the-porch matriarch.
The Preservation Orchestra had an even stronger, perhaps better-founded sense of history – in New Orleans, skills and instruments are passed on in musical dynasties. But the classy musicianship lit up the traditional repertoire of spirituals, rags and vaudeville novelties. Drummer Shannon Powell’s solemn press rolls orchestrated the funeral march with genuine sorrow, pianist Bruce Monie’s modernist input stayed in context, and the front line swung like the clappers. They opened as a trumpet-led quartet, without drums, giving a traditional form a chamber-jazz slant, and studiously avoided headlong tempos, even on the inevitable finale. This was a warm and still living preservation.